- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 14, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Sen. Hillary Clinton bears the scars of health care battles past. It’s been 14 years since her infamous legislative proposal ended up as political carnage on the floor of the congressional sausage-making factory. Yet even today, she still seems to wince when reminded of her colossal legislative failure at the hands of Harry and Louise — and Congress.

But a decade and a half later, she continues the quest with an Ahab-like obsession, trying to conquer a whale called health care reform. Mrs. Clinton learned a lot from the first fracas. Her new plan, she says, is “not a government takeover” and contains “no new bureaucracy.” Moreover, if you like your health insurance the way it is, “you can keep it.” All comforting words for those who worry that expanding the federal reach into health care will lead us down the road to a Cuban-style system.

Yet despite her reassuring rhetoric, the specifics of her proposal are less consoling. Mrs. Clinton’s plan still uses the heavy hand of government to mandate that individuals have health insurance. Her near-religious zeal to force universal coverage strikes some as odd. Even her chief rival, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, opposes the idea. His concerns center primarily on the costs. He argues that even with subsidies, many will not have the means to purchase insurance. (Mr. Obama’s plan only mandates insurance coverage for children.)

Why compel someone to buy something he or she can’t afford? Undeterred, however, the New York senator rarely gives a speech without promising to make sure every man, woman and child in America has insurance — whether they want it or not.

Mrs. Clinton does strike a positive chord with voters on her vision of broader, more affordable insurance coverage. Indeed, many public-opinion polls even demonstrate strong support for a system requiring everyone to have insurance. A survey I conducted in mid-January (Jan. 10-14; 800 registered voters with a margin of error of 3.5 percent) finds 63 percent support a system requiring everyone to have insurance, while only 33 percent oppose. Other polls demonstrate similar findings. At one level, these survey results should come as no surprise: Eighty-five percent of all Americans already have coverage, and some estimates suggest as many as 95 percent of those who vote are insured. A proposal to “require” that everyone get insured is not controversial because most already are.

Here is the rub, however. Mrs. Clinton’s plan also calls for financial penalties for those who fail to purchase insurance — an often-unmentioned detail that stirs significant opposition. She opened a political can of worms when she suggested the government “garnish wages” of those who don’t get coverage. Seventy-six percent of voters oppose financial penalties on individuals when asked in the aforementioned poll, including 78 percent of self-identified Democrats. These numbers make her proposal a tough sell. And it’s also hard to see how the system could achieve that kind of enforcement without any “new bureaucracy” or how it doesn’t move us toward a “government takeover” of health care in America.

Moreover, Mrs. Clinton’s ideological obsession with achieving “universal coverage” raises other doubts about her candidacy. Despite softening her health care rhetoric, many details of her plan remain rigid — and contentious.

Her unyielding quest to achieve victory in this one area of health care may be one reason her general election prospects look less promising than Mr. Obama’s in head-to-head match-ups against Republican Sen. John McCain. According to the RealClearPolitics average, Mr. McCain stands in a statistical dead heat with Mrs. Clinton, 46.6 percent to 45.4 percent, while Mr. Obama leads in the direct match-up with Mr. McCain, 47.4 percent to 43.7 percent.

Improving American health care is a salient bread-and-butter election issue this year. Many polls show it ranking as the first or second most important domestic-policy concern. But health care improvements can come in many forms, including reducing spiraling costs, improving quality and convenience, emphasizing the importance of preventative care and continuing the development of life-saving medicines. Compelling everyone to buy a product, whether he wants it or not — and slapping financial penalties on those who don’t — sounds more like a mandate for defeat than a promise of political success.


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